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NY utility executive promoted amid widening investigation

By Cezary Podkul and Scott DiSavino

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The utility executive who oversaw the widely criticized efforts to restore power to millions of Long Island customers after Superstorm Sandy has been promoted, his company said on Wednesday.

The announcement by National Grid PLC that John Bruckner had been promoted came as an investigation into the handling of the recovery expanded amid lingering public anger over lengthy delays in restoring lights and heat to customers in the New York area.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Wednesday subpoenaed Consolidated Edison and the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) over their handling of the storm's aftermath, according to a source familiar with the matter.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has also launched an investigation into the performance of the state's power companies and regulators. At its peak, almost 2.1 million New York utility customers lost power because of Sandy, including more than 90 percent of LIPA's 1.1 million customers.

National Grid, a UK-based company, manages the electric system for LIPA and has been instrumental in the recovery efforts that have come under so much criticism.

As National Grid's top executive for electric transmission and distribution on Long Island, Bruckner is largely responsible for overseeing work to prepare for the historic storm and get crews in place to restore power after massive outages.

With his promotion, Bruckner has been tapped to lead the power company's U.S. electric operations, a spokesman said. Those operations include utilities in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, upstate New York and Massachusetts.

The spokesman said Bruckner's promotion had been in the works for months. Bruckner was not available for comment, the spokesman said.

His promotion was announced within the company on Tuesday, the same day LIPA's acting chief executive Michael Hervey, who had come under fire for the utility's restoration efforts, tendered his resignation.

"That's what you call a bit of irony," Peter Schlussler, who sits on Suffolk County's LIPA Oversight Committee, said in an interview. "National Grid, I would put them as much to blame as anybody."

The National Grid spokesman said it will "cooperate fully" with Cuomo's probe and "right now, our focus remains on helping the communities we serve recover and rebuild."

HERCULEAN TASK

LIPA is a state-owned power company with just about 100 employees. The National Grid unit on Long island that Bruckner heads operates LIPA's electric system under a contract that will expire at the end of 2013.

At that point, a unit of New Jersey Public Service Enterprise Group Inc will take over the operation of the system.

"We are a very unique organization, as a state agency and a utility, we outsource all the work that we do day-to-day to a service provider, in this case National Grid," LIPA's Hervey told Reuters in an interview.

That outsourced structure has irked local politicians and residents, many of whom say it promotes a lack of accountability, especially during emergency situations like Sandy.

"National Grid's mission was different than LIPA's. They had different managers. They had different bosses. So when Hervey tried to give them direction, it fell on deaf ears," Suffolk County Legislator Wayne Horsley said.

National Grid was responsible for running LIPA's call center during the storm, and for the computer system sending out text message notifications to customers. But for customers like Chedva Dechter, 48, of Woodmere, the distinction is a blur.

"Everybody was getting a different story from LIPA," said the speech therapist and mother of four. "It was the most horrible experience."

LIPA trustee Neal Lewis, who said he'd been informed that the utility's storm costs from Sandy will exceed $900 million, came to Hervey's defense on Wednesday.

"If you just analyze it based on numbers, the restoration effort was very impressive. It was a Herculean task," he said. "Unfortunately, it will be remembered as a failure because of a breakdown in our communication."

He called communications with customers, including the text messages, an "abysmal" failure.

Asked whether National Grid should share some of the blame, Lewis said only that the board would conduct its own review to identify what went wrong and why.

"LIPA is absolutely taking basically all the criticism," Lewis said. "When we conduct our review ... I do think there will be some shared responsibilities."

For his part, outgoing LIPA executive Hervey praised National Grid's Bruckner, calling him an executive who "knows the business" and "is very good at it."

(Additional reporting by Jilian Mincer; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Stacey Joyce)

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